Rise To The Occasion
Thomas Calabrese — A clutch performance is essentially the opposite of choking — the dramatic improvement of performance under pressure. According to psychologist Tim Woodman, “when people are low in cognitive anxiety, or low in worry, the difference between their best performance and their worst performance is not very big. They can perform pretty well, but it’s not fantastic, and it’s not crap. But if you put them in a very high-worry situation, like the Olympic Games, what you find is that their best performance is significantly better than before and their worst performance is significantly worse. So what that tells you is that when you’re under a very high-stress situation you either perform very well or very badly.”
Blake Murray was not the fastest, strongest, smartest or the best at any endeavor that he tried. He was mediocre and average in almost every way except for one very important difference, he exceled beyond wildest expectations when situations were at their most crucial or tense. When he was playing sports in high school, Blake was lucky to even make the team and in the classroom his grades rarely fluctuated from the middle of the pack, about half of the students were better, the other half were worse.
On his nationally ranked football team, he was the 3rd string quarterback, which meant he basically held the clipboard and charted the plays. When he did get in the game, it was only when his team was so far ahead that he couldn’t do anything to lose it. Even then his coach told him to just hand the ball off to the running backs and let the clock run out. As a junior, his team was playing for the state title in Sacramento with their all-star blue chip starting quarterback at the helm. Simon Mandell had been setting records since he was a freshman and there was a collective sigh of woe when he sprained his knee and was taken out of the game in the first quarter. If that wasn’t bad enough Troy Kelly, his back-up, broke his collarbone on the last play before halftime.
The team was behind by 21 points and defeat seemed inevitable when Coach Ron Hodges placed his hand on Blake’s shoulder, “I know that this is a tough situation for you, so just do your best and try not to get hurt. There’s always next year for us.”
“Yes coach,” Blake replied.
During the second half of the game, Blake was unstoppable, running for three touchdowns and throwing for three more. His team won the state title and he was named most valuable player, but when he came back for his senior year, Blake had returned to mediocrity and third string status.
In the sectional finals in baseball, Blake came in to relieve the starting pitcher and struck out nine batters in a row and hit a towering home run in the ninth inning to win the game. While playing in a local summer league, Blake averaged a walk an inning and his batting average was .220 with no home runs.
It never occurred to anyone that Blake was blessed with the clutch factor; they just assumed that he was an underachiever who got lucky once in a while. After high school he enlisted in the Marine Corps and was assigned to 1st Battalion 7th Marines in Afghanistan as a rifleman.
Blake was on patrol with his platoon when they came under attack. A rocket propelled grenade hit the Humvee that he was riding in and it flipped over into a stream. There were four Marines in the vehicle and Blake pulled the driver and the front passenger to safety. Water began rushing in and Gunnery Sergeant Tim Clements who was sitting in back with Blake was pinned beneath the metal turret. In less than a minute, his head would be submerged, “Get out of here, Murray! That’s an order!”
“I’m not leaving you,” Blake responded.
Tim struggled to keep his head up and began choking as the water level reached his nose. Blake took a deep breath, summoned all his strength and went below the surface. He grabbed the heavy metal turret with both hands and summoned Herculean strength to lift it up, allowing Gunnery Sergeant Clements to pull his left ankle free. While lying on the bank of the stream, Tim turned to Blake in astonishment, “I don’t believe what I just saw…where in the hell did you get the strength to do that?”
Blake just shrugged his shoulders, “I guess I’m stronger than I look.”
By the time their unit rotated back to Camp Pendleton, the seasoned veteran and young Marine had become close friends. When Tim retired after a distinguished 20 years career, Blake was genuinely sadden to see him leave, “So what are your plans now that you’re a civilian?”
“I’m heading to Thailand, I’ve got no family anymore and my pension will go a lot further over there than in the states. I was in Chiang Mai a few years ago and love the place. There’s a lot of ex–military in the area including some guys that I’ve served with. They’ve already got me a furnished condo.”
“Sounds good, I wish you the best.” Blake said.
“You’ll have to come over and visit, “Tim offered.
“Don’t just yeah then blow me off,” Tim scolded.
“I will, you’ve got my word.”
“I’m holding you to it,” Tim smiled then added, “I owe you my life and I won’t ever forget that.”
“You would have done the same for me.”
Blake had 18 months left on his enlistment and when he finished, he went home to Bakersfield. He started thinking about what he was going to do next with his life; there was college, only problem was that he didn’t know what he wanted to study. He could find a job or focus on a career path, but once again there was nothing that stirred his interest.
George Murray, Blake’s father suggested, “They’re looking for police officers, pay is good and the benefits aren’t bad.”
“Definitely something to consider,” Blake pondered, “I promised a friend that I would come visit him when I got out. Maybe now is the time to do that before I start anything. What do you think?”
“Do what you think is best, but from my experiences, I have found that if you gave a friend your word then you should keep it. Whatever is here now will probably be here when you get back.”
Blake booked his flight to Thailand on January 10th, that way he could be home with his family for the Christmas holidays. After a five hour layover in Taipei, Taiwan, he arrived in Bangkok (Suvarabhumi) International Airport and was met by Tim Clements, “How was the flight?”
“Not bad…a lot better than when we flew to Kabul,” Blake responded as he stretched his stiff muscles then commented about his friend’s appearance who looked fit and relaxed, “Retirement suits you.”
“Yeah, I’ve adapted well.”
Blake and Tim caught a shuttle to the other side of the airport where a Beechcraft King Air 350 twin turboprop plane was waiting. The pilot was in his early 50’s, prematurely gray with skin that was tanned and leathery with several visible scars on his hands and forearms. His eyes were cobalt blue and shaded the windows to a soul that had experienced the harshest and most brutal elements of the world and somehow and lived through it, “This is Dominic Sagar,” Tim said.
“Nice to meet you,” Blake said.
“Any friend of Tim’s is a friend of mine,” Dominic smiled and extended a firm handshake.
The three men boarded the aircraft and took off for Chiang Mai, a 426 mile flight.
What Blake had no way of knowing was that the pilot was a retired CIA contract assassin. He was living in Thailand under an alias after spending many years in South America and Mexico, dealing with some of the most ruthless and dangerous men in the world. The Sinaloa Cartel currently had a ten million dollar bounty on his head.
Blake had an open ended ticket so he could stay as long as he wanted, but after two weeks of thoroughly enjoying himself with a variety of activities that included; zip lining, white water rafting, mountain biking, kayaking, Thai massages and traditional Klantoke dinners of Pot Taim Tom yam, Gooay teeo reva and Mee group, “I need to think about going home,” Blake commented after finishing his large and tasty meal.
“What’s the matter, aren’t you having a good time?” Tim asked.
“That’s the problem; I’m having too good a time. You’re retired, I’m unemployed, you‘ve earned the right to have a life like this. What I have done…nothing. To top it off, you’ve been paying for everything since I’ve been here.”
“So, what’s the big deal? I have to spend money somewhere, can’t take it with me,” Tim retorted.
It’s not that I don’t appreciate your generosity, but I feel like I’m transitioning from a guest to a leech,” Blake shrugged.
“Want me to find you a job?” Tim asked.
“Thanks anyway, I’ll find something after I get back to California.”
“You and your damn work ethic,” Tim joked, “I guess you can blame that on the Corps.”
It was early the next morning when there was a knock at Blake’s door. He got up from the couch and opened it. “I didn’t wake you up, did I?” Tim asked.
“No way, I live by the philosophy that a wise old Marine once told me; if the sun rises before you do, then you’ve overslept,” Blake answered.
“I don’t know how wise he is, probably was just an insomniac,” Tim replied, “They have a law here in Thailand that all foreigners living here have to check in every 90 days, so I need to go down to the immigration office.”
“Want me to go with you?” Blake asked.
“I’ve done this before and it’s boring, I don’t want you to waste your vacation time sitting around some office.”
“ Don’t worry about me, I’ll find something to do until you get back. Hell I can always kill a few hours at the fitness center,” Blake suggested.
“If you’re up to it, Dominic is flying down to Phuket. The Khao Sok National Park has been closed to cave diving since 2015, but he knows some people in the government and they’re going to let him take some of his friends in. You know how to scuba, don’t you?
“I’m not an expert, but I know the fundamentals,” Blake answered.
“He told me to invite you if you wanted to go,” Tim said, “It’s pretty amazing; oldest evergreen rainforest in the world, huge limestone mountains, wild animals and a hell of a freshwater cave system. I’ve been there twice and you won’t regret going.”
“Sounds good to me, I’d liked to see it,” Blake answered.
“Meet him in the lobby in two hours. It is a thousand miles each way so you’ll be gone a few days. If I get a chance, I’ll meet you down there, if not I’ll see you when you get back.”
Four hard -looking men (mercenaries) were sitting in a restaurant, one of them was on his cellphone, “It’s him, no doubt about it, see for yourself,” The man sent a photo of Dominic Sagar to Joaquin Guzman Loera, the current head of the Sinaloa Cartel at his palatial mansion in Mazatlan, Mexico. When Joaquin received the photo, he responded, “That’s him.”
“How do you want us to handle this?” The man asked.
“Personally, I’d like to cut him up in little pieces, but you’re in a foreign country and we do business in Thailand and I don’t want to disturb that. I also don’t want the CIA avenging one of their own, so you need to make it look like an accident…I’m going to just have to be satisfied with dead is dead.”
“Call me when it’s done,” Joaquin ordered.
Dominic, Blake and three young American women took off later that morning. 4.5 hours later they touched down at a private airfield and were met by a group of Thais and Americans. There was a large truck filled with scuba diving equipment and a bus for transportation to the cave entrance. Once aboard the vehicle, Dominic introduced the two young Thai men, “These men are Thailand’s version of Navy Seals. They know the caves and will be leading the dive.”
The two men nodded and smiled, but did not speak. When they got to the entrance of the main cave complex, equipment was unloaded and the Thai Seals helped everybody get set up. One of the American women walked over to Dominic Sagar, “Hey Dom, I’m going to pass on the dive, I’m feeling sick to my stomach.”
“If you need to go to the hospital, I can take you,” Dom offered.
“That’s not necessary, I just need to lie down. I’ll get a hotel room and when you get ready to fly back to Chiang Mai, I’ll meet you at the airfield.”
“We could be here a couple days,” Dominic said.
“I’m a big girl, I can find something to do,” The woman smiled mischievously.
Six hours later, the woman met with the four mercenaries at the restaurant of the Renaissance Phuket Resort and Spa.
“I’d feel better if we made the exchange in your room,” One man said.
“And I feel better having witnesses around, “The woman gestured to another woman who was taking photos with her cellphone, “You don’t mind if I document our meeting for my own protection. The agreement was two million dollars, got it?”
Another man placed a leather bag on the table. The woman unzipped the bag and looked inside. It was filled with one hundred dollar bills, “Do I need to count it?”
“Do you want to?” The man replied.
“No, He’s at the Khao Sok National Park, cave diving with a dozen others,” The woman grabbed the bag and prepared to leave.
“That’s a big park, you need to show us exactly where,” The man said.
“No way! Too many places to bury a body out there, especially mine.”
“Take it easy, we’re not looking for complications. All we want to do is fulfill the contract and get out of the country.”
“How do you want to do this then?”
“I’ll leave one man with your friend and the money. You take us to the target and then you’re free to do whatever you want with your money.”
“I can live with that,” The woman agreed.
Back at Khao Sok Park, Blake and Dominic and the others prepared to enter the freshwater cave complex led by one of the Thai Seals. The eerie dark green waters of the Chiew Lan Lake greeted the divers and formed a dark underwater canopy as the limestone cliffs towered above them and changed colors like a kaleidoscope.
Once inside the cave, the walls were striated with gorgeous reds, brown, whites and orange tints that formed stunning patterns along the way. Stalactites and stalagmites reached enormous sizes in a few places, sometimes cascading in huge ‘jellyfish’ shaped figures along the walls. Blake saw the mineral deposits sparkling in the beams of light from above. The group swam for two hundred yards to a rock platform that was above the water level and took out their regulators and slipped off their masks.
“Are you glad you came?” Dominic asked.
“Hell yes! This is amazing,” Blake replied.
“You haven’t seen anything yet. We still have another three hundred yards before we circle around.”
The four mercenaries arrived with the woman and parked next to the other vehicles. The other Thai Seal walked up to the passenger side window, “The Park is closed, you’ll have to leave.”
“Sure thing,” The mercenary pulled out his weapon and shot the man in the forehead, “We won’t be staying long.”
The woman calmly commented, “I took you here, our deal is complete. I’m gone!”
The mercenary pulled out his phone and made a call, then turned to the woman with cold eyes, “Take one of these vehicles and get the hell out of here.”
The woman quickly complied and left only a cloud of dust as a remembrance as she raced down the dirt road. The four men unloaded two boxes of explosives and carried them up the rocky trail to a location above the entrance to the cave. They placed charges in strategic locations then ran the cord back to their vehicle and connected it to the detonator.
The divers were running low on air and the Thai Seal was in the lead. He had just reached the opening of the cave when the explosive charges blew and dropped tons of rock on top of him and blocked the exit for the other divers. They managed to swim back to the elevated area and took off their masks and by now they were very low on air.
“What the hell happened?” A woman asked.
“I don’t know,” Dominic asked.
“How are we supposed to get out of here?” A man asked.
Everyone looked at each other, hoping that someone had an answer, but when nobody spoke up, the seriousness of their situation gradually took effect. Nine hours later and they still had no solution to get out. Finally Blake spoke up, “We can’t stay here indefinitely.”
“The Thai Seal is the only one that knew the caves and he’s dead,” Dominic responded.
“We’re going to have to try something,” Blake said.
“When you say we, do you mean you?”
“Since it’s my idea, it only makes sense that I should be the one to try,” Blake smiled.
“Are you an expert diver?”
“Can’t say that I am,” Blake answered.
“Your only qualifications are that you don’t have any qualifications.”
“I’m expendable, does that count?” Blake joked.
“I like you style,” Dominic said.
15 minutes later, Blake rigged up a way to take several tanks with him, “I’ll follow the flow of water and every chance I get, I’ll find a place to get my head above water to conserve oxygen. Beyond that, I guess I’m going to have to wing it.”
Blake inserted the regulator in his mouth, put his mask on and slipped beneath the surface. Instead of being nervous, he was extremely calm, so calm in fact that he was able to slow his breathing down to a meditative state. He swam through narrow channels, relying on his senses that he was going in the right direction. When he emptied the first tank of oxygen, he discarded it and switched to the second one and continued on his way. Two hours later, he switched to the last tank and kept searching for an escape and sometimes it was so dark that Blake had to feel his way along the rock walls. The last tank was almost empty, but Blake still maintained his calmness while focusing on slowing down his breathing. He saw a stream of sunlight so he swam toward it and when he reached it, he looked up and saw the blue sky. There was a chimney type chute through the rocks and it looked to be a hundred foot climb to the top. Blake took off his fins and tank and began climbing, finding hand and toeholds along the way.
When he climbed outside, Blake found himself at the top of a sheer cliff that would be impossible to descend without rappelling equipment so he walked to the other side and recognized the lake that led to the entrance to the cave. Only problem was that it was seventy five feet down. Having no other choice, Blake walked to the edge, hoped that he found a deep spot to land and stepped off. Once he returned to the surface, Blake swam to shore and walked down the road until he found the area where they had parked. He followed a trail of blood to a pile of brush and leaves and when he moved them aside, he saw the dead body of the Thai Navy Seal.
Finding the extra scuba equipment, Blake re-entered the water and found a place near the bottom where he could swim between the fallen rocks then made his way back to where the other divers were waiting. It took several hours, but eventually Blake was able to lead everyone to safety.
Three months later, Dominic was waiting inside the Pala Casino Resort and Spa suite in Pala, California when the woman who sold him out entered. She was so startled that she didn’t know what to say, but it was obvious that she was terrified so her first reaction was to beg for her life, “Don’t kill me.”
“Sssshhh,” Dominic put his index finger to his lips, “As long you give me what I need, you’ll keep breathing.”
Blake and Tim were waiting in the lobby when Dominic stepped off the elevator. They exchanged knowing glances, but didn’t say a word. It took almost a year, but eventually all four contract killers were tracked down and terminated.
Blake and Tim watched intently on the screen as the mini camera on the drone relayed video images as Dominic operated the controls. Joaquin Guzman Loera was relaxing by the pool at his compound while his heavily armed security guards patrolled the area. The small weaponized drone, about the size of a small bird flew over the wall and slowly came up behind the drug lord as he sipped on his beer. A single shot went through the back of his head and the remote weapon departed without ever being noticed.
Blake called his father from Tijuana, “Hey dad, I just thought I’d call to see how you were doing.”
“Good to hear your voice,” George Murray said with enthusiasm, “How’s the new job going?”
“Good so far, I’m learning a lot,” Blake answered without giving away too much.
Unlike many people in Blake’s past who failed to identify and appreciate his unique gift, Dominic Sagar realized the immense value of a man who possessed the Clutch Factor.